Facing up to China

China has yet again refused to grant visa to a military officer born in Arunachal Pradesh
While India-China relations have been fairly stable at the strategic level, these have been marked by political, diplomatic and military instability at the tactical level due to Beijing’s increasing belligerence. The latest incident is that of the denial of a Chinese visa to an Indian Air Force officer on the ground that he was born in Arunachal Pradesh. In retaliation, instead of cancelling the visit, the Indian Government decided to reduce the strength of the tri-service military team going to China from 30 to 15 officers.
Earlier, Lt Gen BS Jaswal of the Northern Command had been denied a visa as he was in command of troops in Jammu & Kashmir, which Beijing considers disputed. China has always objected to the visits of ministers of the Union Government to Arunachal Pradesh and even worked hard to deny the sanctioning of a loan from the Asian Development Bank for development projects in the State. In December 2011, it abruptly cancelled the planned visit of its Vice Foreign Minister for the 15th round of boundary talks between the Special Representatives of the two Prime Ministers because the Indian Government refused to prevent the Dalai Lama’s participation in a Buddhist religious conference in New Delhi.
All of this is part of a carefully drawn up strategy to prevent India’s rise as a co-equal power in Asia. Beijing has for long seen Delhi as a major competitor and has been engaged in its strategic encirclement through proxies like Pakistan along India’s land borders and its “string of pearls” strategy in the northern Indian Ocean region. The major cause for instability is the territorial and boundary dispute over which the two countries fought a war in 1962. China continues to be in physical occupation of large areas of Indian territory in Jammu & Kashmir. On the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh, China is in possession of approximately 38,000 sq km of territory since the mid-1950s. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory to China in 1963 in the Shaksgam Valley of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir under a bilateral boundary agreement that India does not recognise.
China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory in the northeastern State of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls southern Tibet, particularly the Tawang tract. Chinese interlocutors have repeatedly claimed that the Tawang tract is part of Tibet and that its merger is non-negotiable. In 2005, India and China had agreed on “guiding principles and parameters” for a political solution to the territorial dispute. One important parameter was that “settled populations will not be disturbed”. In the case of Tawang, the Chinese have gone back on this. If such errant behaviour continues, India will find it difficult to accept Chinese assurances of peaceful resolution of the territorial dispute at face value.
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. In fact, despite the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) signed with the Chinese in 1993 and the agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field signed in 1996, border guards of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have transgressed the LAC repeatedly to enter Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. They have even objected to Indian road construction efforts and the presence of Indian graziers at their traditional grazing grounds.
Patrol face-offs are commonplace and usually end with both the sides warning each other to go back to their own territory. While no such incident has resulted in a violent clash so far, the probability of such an occurrence is high. Demarcation of the LAC without prejudice to each other’s position on the territorial dispute would be an excellent confidence-building measure, but little progress has been made in 14 rounds of talks between the two special representatives. Under the circumstances, China’s intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors is difficult to understand. It is in India’s interest to focus its diplomatic efforts to expedite the demarcation of the LAC on the Indo-Tibetan border and urge China to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute in an early time frame.
The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget, while India’s military modernisation plans continue to remain mired in red tape. China’s negotiating strategy is to stall resolution of the dispute till the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can then dictate terms.
During any future conflict with either China or Pakistan, India will have to contend with a two-side confrontation as both the countries may be expected to collude militarily with the other — a situation for which the Indian armed forces are not suitably equipped. Hence, it is in India’s interest to strive for the early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that it has only one major military adversary to contend with. Meanwhile, instability in the security relationship has the potential to act as a spoiler and will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains.
In conventional weapons and present force levels, the Indian Army has adequate combat capability to defend the border, but not sufficient to deter war as it lacks a potent offensive operations capability. The gap between India and China in overall military potential, particularly the gap in strategic weapons, is increasing rapidly in Beijing’s favour. China is also actively engaged in upgrading the military infrastructure in Tibet in substantive terms. The all-weather railway line to Lhasa, being extended further to Shigatse and later to Kathmandu, will enable China to build up rapidly for a future conflict. New roads and military airfields have also been built. Military camps are coming up closer to the border.
China has inducted a large number of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) into Tibet and can rapidly induct another 500 to 600 SRBMs for a future conflict by moving them from the coastline opposite Taiwan. With improvements in military infrastructure, China’s capability of building up and sustaining forces in Tibet has gone up to 30 to 35 divisions. The PLA’s rapid reaction divisions can also significantly enhance its combat potential over a short period of time. As China’s military power in Tibet grows further, it will be even less inclined to accept the Indian version of the LAC and the boundary.
India, therefore, needs to build up adequate military capabilities to deter the threat from China. In the short-term, the requirement is to ensure that there are no violations of the LAC through effective border management while maintaining a robust dissuasive conventional posture. India must step up its diplomatic efforts to seek early resolution of the territorial dispute, particularly the immediate delineation of the LAC physically on ground and map. Efforts to develop military infrastructure in the border areas for the speedy induction of forces need to be stepped up. India must maintain a strong capability to defend island territories in the Bay of Bengal and safeguard national interests in the Exclusive Economic Zone. Diplomatic efforts to increase the country’s influence in Bangladesh, the Central Asian Republics, Myanmar, Nepal and with the ASEAN countries should be pursued vigorously.
The long-term requirement is to match China’s strategic challenge in the region and develop a viable military deterrence capability against the use of nuclear and missile weapons systems. Threats posed by nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles cannot be countered by the deployment of land forces and conventional air power alone. Nuclear weapons are best deterred by nuclear weapons and, as a logical corollary, only missiles can deter missiles. Hence, India must develop, test and operationally induct the Agni-III, Agni-IV and Agni-V IRBMs and raise two mountain Strike Corps so as to be able to upgrade its present strategic posture of ‘dissuasion’ to one of credible ‘deterrence’
Simultaneously, India must develop counter-leverages so that the country can be more assertive in its dealings with China. It must reach out to its friends in Southeast Asia and further east along the Asia-Pacific rim as part of a carefully thought-out strategy to develop some pressure points. In this regard, India’s emerging strategic partnerships with Japan, Korean and Vietnam will propel its “look east” policy to a higher trajectory.
One month after China objected to oil exploration by India in the South China Sea under a contract awarded to the Indian state-owned company ONGC Videsh Ltd by the Vietnamese and three months after the Chinese Navy warnedINS Airavat, which was sailing in international waters between the Vietnamese ports of Nha Trang and Hai Phong, to leave Chinese waters — a warning that the Indian naval ship ignored — India and Vietnam signed an agreement on energy cooperation. The agreement was signed during the visit of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to New Delhi to further cement the strategic partnership. The two countries also decided to pursue a regular security dialogue, which has further incensed the Chinese.
The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, thundered: “China may consider taking actions to show its stance and prevent more reckless attempts in confronting China.” Earlier the paper had warned that prospecting for oil in China-claimed waters would “push China to the limits”. The relatively moderate People’s Daily, too, did not mince words: “China must take practical and firm actions to make these projects fall through. China should denounce this agreement as illegal. Once India and Vietnam initiate their exploration, China can send non-military forces to disturb their work, and cause dispute or friction to halt the two countries’ exploration.”
The China Energy News observed: “India is playing with fire by agreeing to explore for oil with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea... its energy strategy is slipping into an extremely dangerous whirlpool.”
Chinese analysts are perhaps unaware that ONGC’s association with Vietnam for oil and gas exploration goes back 23 years. For the time being India has chosen to ignore Chinese warnings and continue its activities in accordance with the contract signed by ONGC Videsh with Vietnam.
Defence cooperation between India and Vietnam is being gradually stepped up. Recent news reports have suggested that India is considering the sale of the non-nuclear BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam. A case can be made out for the transfer of obsolescent ballistic missiles like Prithvi to Vietnam as these are likely to be removed soon from the Indian arsenal.
Some Indian analysts have gone to the extent of saying that India should project Vietnam as “India’s Pakistan” in its quest to develop leverages against China as this Southeast Asian country offers India an entry point through which it can “penetrate China’s periphery”. Others have suggested the supply of military hardware at “friendship prices” and the provision of advanced combat training facilities in India, especially for Vietnamese fighter pilots. All of this military support can be provided at a nominal cost. Surely, the geo-political implications of India’s enhanced strategic cooperation will not be lost on anyone.
As India begins to flex its maritime muscles, the footprints of the navies and the merchant fleets of Delhi and Beijing will criss-cross each other in future and there is need for an ‘incidents at sea’ agreement to avoid possible clashes. Also, arrangements for security will need to be made in consultation with the local Government concerned so that Indian assets being employed for legitimate commercial purposes are not vandalised or destroyed by either adversary states or state-sponsored terrorists who can operate with plausible deniability.
The writer is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi